Late last week Indians beat reporter Jordan Bastian had one of his mailbags at Indians.com. These are often interesting if only sometimes insightful, though he does give a good glimpse of his own access to the team to the fandom at large. More often it’s instructive of how fans as a whole think, or at least how the fans who write into and get selected by Bastian to answer their questions think.
At any rate, the first question of this mailbag had to do with the idea of trading Corey Kluber. On its face, a mind-numbingly ridiculous idea. Who trades their ace who’s being paid a comparative pittance? But Bastian’s response, at the same time well-reasoned and disheartening, was that, well, why wouldn’t the Indians listen to offers? Not just for him, but for Carlos Carrasco, as well? We’re less than a week into the offseason, and having a reminder of the bounds the Indians are trapped in, it’s a stark reminder that reality, even in its worst form, never stops.
As Bastian noted, despite being under a very team-friendly contract through 2021 including a couple options, due to his own excellence Kluber is going to get expensive pretty quick. Well, “expensive,” anyway. When he gets top 10 in AL Cy Young Award voting later this month his salary next year leaps to $17 million and his options bounce to $18 million and 18.5 million per year. That would have placed him second on the 2018 Indians in salary, just behind Edwin Encarnacion’s 18.6 million. He’s already slated to be the second-highest paid Indian in 2019 at $15 million, and this merely adds to it.
So he’s going to be one of the highest paid players in Cleveland. This makes sense. He’s really good, he’s been overall probably their best player the last five years and he’s more than earned it. Smart teams and poor teams and smart poor teams don’t pay players based on what they’ve earned in the past though. It’s not even “What have you done for me lately”, it’s “what will you do for me in the future”. Getting saccharine about it and paying for his past work is foolish. That’s poor business and traps you in mediocrity. Kluber has been fantastic for the Indians. If we go by the idea that a “win” costs $8 million on the open market, just last year Kluber was worth nearly $48 million. And that $8 million mark is probably a year or so old, so it’s likely higher. Basically he was worth most of his contract just this past year alone if the Tribe had to find those wins in free agency. And he only made $10.7 million in 2018. He’s a bargain. He becomes less of a bargain next year, but assuming he still gives Cleveland 200ish innings, he’s still going to be a top 10 pitcher in the AL and continue to produce surplus wins.
But the Indians must be smart, and they must be judicious, and their fans must sometimes suffer for it. Because it is a good idea, in a sense, to at least consider the idea of trading one of Kluber or Carrasco. The fact is, their window is still open, but they’re a step or two behind the Red Sox, Astros Yankees, and probably even teams like the Rays are on their level at this point. The division is likely still theirs even if I at least expect the Twins to make a better showing of it in 2019. They just need more good players, and have holes around the diamond. Their strength is that rotation. Even without Kluber, a full season of Carrasco, Bauer, Clevinger and Bieber as a top four is one of the better rotations in the AL. Perhaps trading Carrasco makase a bit more sense than Kluber, he’s already had elbow surgery and that’s got a time limit of sorts on it. But either way, this is a real consideration that we have to understand.
And it stinks. It really does. This is the reality of the financial side of the game that we all hate. The Indians do a great job of suppressing their players’ salary by paying them before they break out, extracting a ton of excess value from them in the process and enabling themselves to field a competitive team on an unequal playing field. And right now, if the goal is really to win a World Series, they need to figure out how to flesh out the rest of the team, or else add a big prospect to the farm that can help in a year or two.
That means subtracting from where you’re powerful to add to a great weakness. And again, that stinks. Because we all love watching Kluber pitch, and Carrasco and all these guys. Anyone who watches and roots for the Indians knows that clock is always ticking on every player - eventually they’ll get priced out of Cleveland because ownership won’t pay market value. Plus, the team does need to pay a true, unabashed generational talent soon, before Lindor really assumes that level that makes him impossible to keep more than the requisite six years. It’s already looking increasingly likely, both with him and Bauer. Does trading Kluber make it more feasible? Perhaps. It frees up money, and helps add talent to the team for the near future.
This is why I hate the offseason. More often than not the winter is a time of subtraction for the Indians. Times like the Edwin deal, or even before they went south the Bourn and Swisher deals, were a happy surprise. The Indians build from the inside and try to hold onto talent they cultivated. They did that with Kluber. He’s still cheap. But reality is a bastard. In cases like these management and the fanbase are diametrically opposed — one can’t afford to be sentimental when the future is on the line, and other side lives for those memory-making moments. I don’t think they’ll trade Kluber. Not this winter. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dread it.